Bergen Tunnel

The Erie RR's (ERR) Bergen Hill Tunnel, built between 1856 and 1861, gave the ERR system its own access to the vitally important Port of New York. It was one of the longest railroad tunnels constructed in America prior to the Civil War.

West Portal, Bergen Hill Tunnel, 2008 (Richard Grubb & Associates).

The ERR was never satisfied with sharing the NJRR's Bergen Cut and terminal in Jersey City, so on February 21, 1856, it formed the Long Dock Company to build its own port facilities.(1) To overcome the Bergen Hill, the Long Dock Company planned to reach its new terminal through a tunnel.

With the exception of the original survey map for the proposed route, no plans or construction drawings of the tunnel have been located. Written descriptions of the undertaking, however, fill newspapers of the period and the proceedings of several court cases involving law suits over the construction of the tunnel. Initially, plans called for sinking at least two shafts from the top of Bergen Hill along the centerline of the planned route. This method of digging allowed work crews to proceed on multiple fronts inside the bore instead of just at the tunnel openings. The shafts also provided critical ventilation, both during the construction process and later under normal steam locomotive operations. Once each shaft reached its pre-determined depth, tunneling commenced horizontally along the "heading," or top of the tunnel, until the sections were joined together. Then excavation continued along the "footings," gradually enlarging the bore to the required width and depth.(2) The original plans called for a tunnel measuring 4,330 feet long, 23 feet high, 29.5 feet wide and carrying two tracks of the NY&ERR's distinctive 6-foot wide gauge.(3)  

On May 28, 1856, the Long Dock Company contracted with James H. Mallery of Newburgh, New York to construct the tunnel, including the bore, shafts, and approaches and to deliver the same to the company on or before December 15, 1857.(4) The terms of the Mallery Contract provided for periodic payments based on the progress of the work. It also provided for a hold-back of ten percent of the value of the work to secure its completion.(5) Simon Post, the Long Dock Company's Chief Engineer, directed the project at the start.(6) Mallery commenced work on June 3, 1856.(7) While the contract called for not less than two shafts, Post and Mallery settled on eight shafts to allow work on 18 headings at once.(8) Each shaft was numbered sequentially from east to west and was excavated in approximately the same order.

The base of Shaft No. 1 in the tunnel ceiling, Bergen Hill Tunnel, 2009 (Joseph Elliott).

The size of the operation was staggering. The top of each shaft featured its own shaft house, engine house, blacksmith shop, and miscellaneous sheds, as well as steam engines, boilers, blowers, shafting, gearing, and a pump to lift out ground water.(9) The operation included a full butcher shop and a company store. The project consumed 40,900 lbs of drill steel; 2,000 lbs of cast steel hammers; 10,000 lbs of round, square, and flat iron; and numerous wagons, horses, and carts.(10) Every month workers required 5,000 kegs of blasting powder and about 1,100 pounds of candles.(11) Approximately 1,000 men were hired at the outset, and work continued night and day in 11-hour shifts, six days a week.(12) Before the tunnel was complete, 57 laborers would lose their lives.(13)

A circa 1860 brick arch at the base of Shaft No. 4, Bergen Hill Tunnel, 2009 (Joseph Elliott).

By 1857, the lack of hard currency began to seriously strain the Long Dock Company and Mallery's cash flow.(14) On October 3, 1857, without the necessary funds available, the railroad ordered Mallery to suspend all work and discharge the laborers.(15) It took 16 months for the railroad to settle lawsuits with Mallery and its creditors and to find the additional funding needed to resume work. On February 14, 1859 the railroad signed a new contract with John P. Cumming.(16) Cumming assigned the contract, in turn, to fellow contractor Alfred B. Seymour on June 2, 1859.(17) In the meantime, James P. Kirkwood took over as Chief Engineer, and he hired John Houston to act as resident Engineer.(18)

West Portal, Bergen Hill Tunnel (lower right), circa 1880. A DL&WRR train crosses the bridge overhead (Taber 1977:88).

In the 16 months following the suspension of work, the tunnel and shafts had filled with ground water.(19) The railroad began pumping out the water on March 7, 1859, and by mid-August 1859, digging throughout the tunnel was again underway.(20) But as the tunnel took shape, loose rock became an increasing problem.(21) Kirkwood and Houston decided to install a series of stone and brick arches beneath the most unstable sections.(22) George Judd and John Wells of the masonry firm of Judd & Wells completed the arching work. These early arches consisted of low stone abutments, topped by granite springer stones. The brick vaults rose from the springers to the crown of the arch and measured between 16 and 36 inches in thickness.(23) The most dangerous section of the interior turned out to be a pocket of loose material located between Shafts 5 and 6. In August 1860, Houston ordered the contractor to sink a ninth shaft over the pocket, ostensibly to lighten the weight. Then on September 20, 1860 the entire section collapsed up to the surface of the ground.(24) The cave-in, dubbed the "Large Pocket" or "Big Pocket," delayed the project considerably.

Some arches were reinforced in 1877 with a patented cement-like mortar mix called Benton, Bergen Hill Tunnel, circa 1880 (Chanute 1881:298).

The Bergen Hill Tunnel opened with fanfare on February 6, 1861.(25) Regular passenger traffic commenced running on the south track the following day while workmen continued to widen portions of the tunnel and construct the second track.(26) To commemorate the tunnel, the railroad installed a stone tablet over the east entrance portal containing the names of the railroad's officials and engineers responsible for its construction. Below the portal cornice, the fascia stone was carved with the names of the Long Dock Company, the date of its founding, the name of the tunnel, and its completion date. The final estimated cost was slightly less than $2 million dollars.(27)

Original East Portal, Bergen Hill Tunnel, circa 1910. The central cartouche and cornice frieze are inscribed with the name of the tunnel, the railroad, and its officers and engineers (Seely 1977: Attachment HAER NJ-22).

Original West Portal, Bergen Hill Tunnel (lower right), circa 1910. Crews are clearing the way for the DL&WRR's second bore (Seely 1977: Attachment HAER NJ-22).

In the years after its opening, the tunnel required additional shoring. In 1867, Chief Engineer Houston supervised the construction of a series of additional brick arches, and in 1877, under Chief Engineer Octave Chanute's supervision, the railroad arched over an additional 130 feet with brick and relined about 30 feet of deteriorating brick with Beton, a patented mortar mix comprised of hydraulic cement, sand, and water developed in France.(28) The ERR's last significant change to the tunnel began in 1897 when it decided to build a series of tunnels and open cuts parallel to the old bore. The project known generally as the Bergen Arches required truncating the Bergen Hill Tunnel's east and west ends by a total of approximately 300 feet and building new concrete portals. During this procedure on September 11, 1910, approximately 50 feet of the tunnel's western brick arch and overlaying roof collapsed, killing 11 and injuring eight.(29) It was the single deadliest construction accident involving the tunnel.

The Erie RR's New Bergen Arches cuts through Bergen Hill next to the old Bergen Hill Tunnel (lower left), circa 1910 (French 2002:62).

By the mid-twentieth century the ERR was in steep decline. In 1956 the company developed plans to single-track the tunnel, and on October 17, 1960, the ERR and the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad (DL&WRR) combined to form the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad (ELRR).(30) Most of the ERR facilities in and around Jersey City were downgraded or abandoned in favor of the DL&WRR's, but freight continued to move through the Bergen Hill Tunnel.(31) The Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) took over the operation on April 1, 1976. The CSX Corporation and the Norfolk Southern Railroad acquired Conrail in the 1990s. Together, they operate the National Docks Secondary Line through the Bergen Hill Tunnel as part of a jointly owned company called Conrail Shared Assets Corporation.

For full bibliographic citations, click on the Bibliography page.

1. Hungerford 1946:132-133; Beasley 1860:432
2. New York Times 1857:3
3. Court of Errors and Appeals 1858:12; New York Times 1857:3; Cook 1865:11
4. Beasley 1860:433-434
5. Beasley 1860:433; Court of Errors and Appeals 1858: Schedule 11-18
6. Court of Chancery 1863:329
7. Court of Errors and Appeals 1858:34; New York Times 1857:3
8. Seely 1977:49
9. Beasley 1860:433
10. Court of Errors and Appeals 1858:21-23
11. New York Times 1857:3
12. New York Times 1857:3
13. Hungerford 1946:133
14. Court of Errors and Appeals 1858:41
15. Court of Errors and Appeals 1858:47
16. Court of Chancery 1866a:54
17. Green 1878:403
18. Court of Chancery 1866a:49
19. Court of Chancery 1866a:51
20. Court of Chancery 1866a:54
21. Court of Chancery 1866a:141
22. Court of Chancery 1866a:77
23. Court of Chancery 1866a:150
24. Court of Chancery 1866a:80, 92
25. Court of Chancery 1866a:93
26. Court of Chancery 1866a:93, 147
27. New York Times 1861:3
28. Houston 1868:75; Chanute 1881:291-292, 297
29. New York Times 1910:1
30. Erie Railroad 1956; Taber and Taber 1980:140
31. Taber and Taber 1980:145

For more detailed information, click here to access the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) report on the Erie Railroad Bergen Hill Tunnel.